For someone who wants Northern Ireland to work properly, particularly if he or she believes that can happen only within the United Kingdom, assessing the Assembly election results feels rather like picking through a car crash. It was clear enough that an unnecessary, divisive campaign would end badly, but the extent of the damage was perhaps unexpected.
The significance of unionism losing its majority at Stormont is less about the constitutional question and more about parties that have lost touch with potential voters and broader changes in society. After all, while the campaign was ongoing, it was commonplace to hear that the border was not an issue at this election, whereas some of the same commentators now insist that Brexit and DUP incivility have reignited popular demands for a united Ireland.
There’s no compelling evidence that the new composition of the Assembly reflects a widespread desire to revisit the border question. Any constitutional uncertainty created by the UK’s decision to leave the EU represents the tiniest fraction of the upheaval that would follow a referendum determining that Northern Ireland should become part of a thirty-two county Irish republic.
None of which means that the Union is in a healthy state, never mind that pro-Union parties are flourishing. A lack of appetite for a united Ireland isn’t the same as a positive commitment to the United Kingdom, and a significant section of Northern Ireland’s new legislature, including the constitutionally ‘agnostic’ Alliance Party, wants a ‘special status’ within the UK after Brexit that preserves membership of the EU’s single market.
The government is resolutely opposed to that kind of arrangement, so it won’t happen, but it is dangerous that radical change to our position within the United Kingdom is even under discussion by so-called moderates. When positive, pro-Union arguments are not articulated effectively, the tone of debate in Northern Ireland can easily change.
That’s why the approach Arlene Foster and the DUP took during the campaign was spectacularly misguided, even if it was understandable given the circumstances of the election. The former First Minister’s fearmongering and her confrontational, smirking demeanour were the right tactics to fend off any challenge from the UUP, but they were a disastrous strategy for unionism.
The cynicism and hypocrisy that Sinn Fein showed when it collapsed the Executive were formidable, but it’s up to unionists to show a little more cunning in the face of such slippery, dishonest opponents. Yes, republicans tell bare-faced lies about the past, in order to legitimise their twisted version of the Troubles and their version of ‘equality’ is just an underhand way of attacking the principle of consent.
Then again, the DUP has done little to promote the counter-arguments, that Irish culture is valued within Northern Ireland and the UK, even if that doesn’t mean granting parity to symbols and institutions associated with the Republic of Ireland state. It could have articulated the case against an Irish language act more tactfully too, or even presented an alternative that minimised the costs and the effects to public services.
That didn’t happen because the party’s habit is to posture against everything it considers Irish or nationalist - a stance which it believes the unionist electorate rewards at the polls.
Something similar might be said for emotive social matters, like same-sex marriage. ‘SSM’ has developed, in an astonishingly brief period of time, from a marginal concern into an overwrought totem of 'equality', particularly for younger people. The DUP and some other unionists have allowed a debate over a word, because same-sex couples can already access legal rights practically identical to a married couple through ‘civil partnership’, to become a symbol of the supposed ‘backwardness’ of unionism.
There was no need to sustain this damage. Had the DUP simply voted against gay marriage, but declined to trigger a ‘petition of concern’, on the perfectly logical premise that it wasn’t appropriate, it could have stuck to its principles without exercising an anti-democratic veto. This is exactly the type of constructive leadership that Arlene Foster might have offered during her ‘honeymoon period’ as First Minister, but the opportunity was squandered.
If the party considered such strategies at all, it probably decided that the risk of alienating traditional supporters was too great. Indeed, Mrs Foster doesn’t have to look far to find examples of unionist leaders who apparently foundered after adopting liberal policies. Mike Nesbitt has just resigned as UUP leader, following a campaign during which he announced his intention to give a number 2 vote to an SDLP candidate, rather than another unionist.
The consequences of his decision may be exaggerated - the Ulster Unionists actually increased their vote share in this election, albeit marginally. Then again, Nesbitt would have hoped for substantial gains, after the party’s main unionist rivals endured months of criticism for their role in the RHI green energy scandal. And the UUP’s Assembly election performance in 2016 wasn’t exactly an impressive benchmark.
Arlene Foster's response to the unionist parties’ underwhelming result, coupled with Sinn Fein’s gains and comparative success for Alliance, has been to call again for ‘unionist unity’. This is a particularly bizarre prescription after an election that suggests unionist parties have a problem appealing to a broad spectrum of voters. It’s a call that reflects the DUP’s ongoing fixation with maintaining its dominance within unionism.
If unionist politics in Northern Ireland are narrow, monolithic and negative, they will atrophy and contribute ever less to shaping society or promoting the Union. If they’re expansive, divergent and plugged into wider political debates in the UK, there is a chance of winning back voters and influencing the way the constitutional question is discussed. A single unionist party, or a single unionist group, becomes an even stupider idea whenever the electorate unionism needs to reach is increasingly diverse.
Before I conclude, a word on RHI, which I’ve left to the end deliberately. Though, ostensibly, the election was called because of the crisis, it quickly became part of the general background noise of the campaign. Northern Ireland’s unscheduled trip to the ballot box actually delayed the heating initiative being dealt with and investigated properly. RHI is also just the latest example of the appalling attitude to wasting money that pervades Stormont. How can any of the other Assembly parties credibly attack the DUP, when their own approaches to public spending are equally as profligate?
Of course, that doesn’t make the RHI episode acceptable. The fact that Arlene Foster didn’t acknowledge its seriousness, and the fact that the other parties were unable during the campaign to stick to the topics that really matter - like waste, lack of transparency and economic incompetency - shows just how badly Stormont is failing. Even if some type of dubious “cut and shut” job is performed to get the wreck up and running again, it will remain a dangerously rickety, malfunctioning vehicle.